Holding your baby in your arms for the first time is one of the most special moments for new parents—and you’ll no doubt never want to let go. Skin-to-skin contact between mom and baby is hugely important for bonding and can also help if you’re struggling with premature baby feeding problems by encouraging breastfeeding. But what if your baby arrived earlier than planned? If your baby was born preterm (before 37 weeks) or has a low birth weight (less than 5lb 5oz or 2500g), then the first few days and weeks after birth were likely different than what you had pictured. This is because premature babies normally have to stay in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), under special treatment, for several weeks or even months. This can be an extremely stressful and emotional period for parents as you worry about your baby’s health and may feel you’re missing out on precious time spent getting to know your newborn.
What is kangaroo care?
Kangaroo care is a way of holding your premature baby skin-to-skin on your chest. Similar to how kangaroos carry their babies in their pouch, you put your naked baby (except for a diaper and maybe a cap) upright against your bare chest. A wrap is often used to secure the baby. Kangaroo care was developed in South America as an alternative approach to care for premature babies, who didn’t have access to incubators in the NICU. The skin-to-skin care has many positive benefits for your baby that will persist after you are discharged from the NICU. Kangaroo care is also a great way for mothers and families to bond with their preemie, and it helps to decrease maternal anxiety and depression. Depending on how you and your little hero are feeling, you may want to spend several hours a day kangarooing. Ask your healthcare team when you can start this. They will also be able to help you get your baby out of the incubator and handle the tubes in the early days.
How kangaroo care benefits your little hero
Using the kangaroo hold so you can have skin-to-skin contact with your preterm baby is a special, sensory experience bringing many benefits through touch, sound, and smell—for both parent and baby.
Baby feels the warmth of being held skin-to-skin
Benefit: This can help to keep your premature baby maintain a stable temperature and is great for parent-child bonding.
Try: Once you are seated comfortably, ask your nurse to help you transfer your naked baby (except for a diaper and maybe a cap) tummy-down and upright on your bare chest. Use a blanket, wrap, or your clothes to keep you both warm and snuggly.
Baby smells your scent
Benefit: Babies who receive kangaroo care are more likely to breastfeed as they are close to your breasts and will be able to smell your milk. Kangaroo care helps the transition to breastfeeding and will also help to increase your milk supply.
Try: Ditching your perfume—baby likes your natural smell. If you are comfortable, remove your bra so your preemie can nuzzle in for a feed whenever they feel hungry, or have a go at ‘practice sucking’ your nipples if they aren’t quite ready for breastfeeding.
Baby hears your voice
Benefit: The sound of your voice is comforting and helps baby to drift off and sleep for longer—just as it did in the womb.
Try: Singing, talking or reading aloud to your little one—it could be those new baby cards you probably haven’t had a chance to open yet or your to-do list for the day. Anything goes!
Baby hears your heartbeat
Benefit: This can help to regulate their breathing and slow their heartbeat, making them more relaxed and ready for sleep.
Try: Getting comfy and making sure you have used the washroom and have essentials on hand like a drink of water, some healthy snacks, and your phone within easy reach so you can enjoy the special time together and not have to get up.
You feel baby close to you
Benefit: Parents feel empowered that they can do something positive for their premature baby and to be part of their baby’s healthcare team.
Try: Experimenting with a sling so you can enjoy skin-to-skin contact while you have your hands free to do other things. Your healthcare team will be able to advise on when your baby is big enough.
Premature baby feeding tips
Your healthcare team will develop a feeding plan for your infant. This will include breast milk as it is rich in nutrients that will help your baby to grow as well as immunity-boosting antibodies that can protect her from infections. Because your premature baby’s gut is immature, it is the easiest food for them to digest. However, as preterm babies have increased nutritional needs to support their growth and development, breast milk needs to be enriched or fortified in order to meet these specific nutrient requirements. Your healthcare team may recommend a plan that includes breast milk fortifiers or supplementing your breast milk with premature baby formula. This is because preterm babies need more energy, protein, certain fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals than full-term babies. You shouldn’t feel guilty about supplementing or fortifying your breast milk as you’re helping your little hero to catch up on what they missed out on during the last weeks of pregnancy.
Premature baby feeding problems
Breastfeeding also helps you to bond with your preemie and get regular skin-to-skin contact; however, sometimes this isn’t possible right from the beginning as preterm babies aren’t always strong enough to suckle from breast straight away. This can be an incredibly emotional time for new moms and your healthcare team will guide and support you through this. They will also help you to provide your own nutritious breast milk to your baby, if possible. This may mean trying to express breast milk, which may be fed to your little one through a tube. See our article on Expressing and Storing Breast Milk. Don’t worry if your milk doesn’t come in instantly, sometimes it can take a while. Putting your baby on your chest for regular skin-to-skin via kangaroo care can help to stimulate your milk supply. Letting your baby practice suckling your nipples when they’re in the kangaroo hold can also help them transition to breastfeeding when they’re ready. Don’t forget to get plenty of food, water, and rest if you can, and keep trying to express every few hours. Be patient and trust your body—you’ve got this!
Dad and baby skin-to-skin time
Kangaroo care isn’t just for moms! They may not be able to breastfeed, but dads and other family members can still do the kangaroo hold and enjoy special skin-to-skin time with baby. It’s reassuring for your little one to get into a kangarooing rhythm as early as possible, so chat to your healthcare team about establishing a routine.
Jeffries AL. Kangaroo care for the preterm infant and family. Paediatr Child Health. 2012;17(3):141-143.
Perinatal Services BC. Kangaroo Care. http://www.perinatalservicesbc.ca/health-professionals/professional-resources/kangaroo-care Accessed November 2020.
SickKids. About Kids Health. How to provide kangaroo care. https://www.aboutkidshealth.ca/article?contentid=3823&language=english Accessed November 2020.
Last revised: November 2020
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